A Cross-Border Coal Power Plant Could Put Sundarbans at Risk

Conservationists argue the power plant would spew thousands of tons of toxic coal ash and air pollutants, discharge mercury-laden used water into rivers and damage water quality and biodiversity.

–An India-Bangladesh promoted coal-fired power plant, in the periphery of the Sundarbans Reserve Forest in Bangladesh, is geared to start operations by March 2021.

–Sundarbans is the largest contiguous mangrove forest in the world, straddling India and Bangladesh and home to several endangered species, such as the royal Bengal tiger.

–The project is facing fierce opposition from a section of activists and experts who say the plant will bring disaster to the fragile mangroves. A UN expert has called on the Bangladesh government to halt accelerating industrialisation of the Sundarbans.

Work on the controversial India-Bangladesh promoted coal-fired power plant, within kissing distance of the Sundarbans Reserve Forest in Bangladesh, is underway amid rising opposition on grounds that the project threatens the world’s largest mangrove forest and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The 1320-megawatt ultra-supercritical (high efficiency, low emission) plant site at Rampal in Bangladesh sits 14 kilometres from the boundary of the Sundarbans Reserve Forest. It is set to start power generation by March 2021, as per project officials.

But a section of conservationists, human rights experts, activists contends that the project would be “disastrous” to the Sundarbans mangrove forest that is already reeling under impacts of climate change and industrialisation. Activists have also slammed the Orion Khulna coal-fired power plant, also proposed at the edge of the world heritage site.

They argue the power plants would spew thousands of tons of toxic coal ash and air pollutants, discharge mercury-laden used water at varying temperature into rivers, damage water quality and biodiversity and would further complicate the traffic situation in the accident-prone Sundarbans waterways where coal and oil-laden cargo vessel capsizes are frequent.

The latest rap comes from UN expert John H. Knox in his last public statement as the special rapporteur on human rights and the environment.

Knox has called on the Bangladesh government to halt “accelerating industrialisation of the Sundarbans.”

Referencing the Rampal project, Knox has said in a press release: “Despite objections from UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Bangladesh has approved more than 320 industrial projects in the area, including the massive Rampal coal-fired power plant, bypassing requirements for public participation and environmental impact assessment.”

“The accelerating industrialisation of the Sundarbans threatens not only this unique ecosystem – which hosts Bengal tigers, Ganges river dolphins and other endangered species – but also poses serious risks to the human rights of the 6.5 million people whose lives, health, housing, food and cultural activities depend directly on a safe, healthy and sustainable Sundarbans forest,” a statement quoting Knox said.

It adds that last year, the High Court of Bangladesh directed the State not to approve any industries within the 10-kilometre buffer zone of the reserved forest. “However, government approvals have continued despite the decision,” the statement said.

Mohammad Hossain, director general of Power Cell, under Bangladesh’s Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources, maintains that the Rampal coal plant or technically the ‘Maitree Super Thermal Power Project’ is slated to be “one of the best eco-friendly power plants” in the country.

“We are adopting every state of art technology; the modern technology available as of now. Rampal project is being designed and developed with modern ultra-supercritical technology and with high standard of care for the Sundarbans and its adjacent areas,” Hossain told MongabayIndia.

“All issues raised by national and international bodies were given due consideration and addressed. Considering the sensitivity of the Sundarbans, a 25 km radius was considered for the environmental impact assessment (EIA), while ten km radius is considered as normal practice,” Hossain asserted.

Map made with Google Earth Pro.

The flagship project between Bangladesh and India was finalised during the historic visit of the prime minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina to India in January 2010.

The plant is promoted by the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) and NTPC Limited, India with equal (50-50) equity participation. Rampal project will be constructed, owned and operated by Bangladesh-India Friendship Power Company (Pvt.) Limited (BIFCL), a company incorporated and registered in Bangladesh.

Sundarbans already in harm’s way

Sundarbans, lying on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal, straddles the India and Bangladesh borders. The mangroves are spread across 10,000 square km and of which 62% is in Bangladesh. The mangroves buffer the low-lying country against storms and rising sea levels.

The Sundarbans Reserve Forest (SRF) in Bangladesh, is a Ramsar Site bordering India’s Sundarbans National Park, in the state of West Bengal. On both sides, the properties are inscribed separately on the World Heritage List.

A mosaic of islands, labyrinth of tidal waterways and mudflats sheltering salt-tolerant mangrove species, shapes the landscape’s dynamic ecosystem.

According to Hossain, one of the crucial selection criteria for the site was navigation facilities for ease of coal transport because, he said, due its location, Bangladesh has very limited navigation facility in the country round the year.

“For a coal-based project like Rampal, it needs substantial draft which is only available in Rampal at the south-western region of Bangladesh. Besides, navigation facility, land use pattern, resettlement etc. were considered for selection of the site. The land of the Rampal site is non-irrigable and only 15 families needed resettlement,” Hossain said.

The site for the plant is at Rampal in Khulna division in southwestern Bangladesh, a spot that is upstream of the reserve forest boundary, along the banks of the Pashur river that cuts through the Sundarbans and snakes its way into the Bay of Bengal.

Downstream to the plant site, where the Pashur meets the Mongla river, is the busy Mongla port, the second biggest seaport of the country. This is roughly 100 km upstream of the Bay of Bengal.

This tidal river, an important navigation route is also the source of water and navigation access for the coal plant.

In 1999, a ten km boundary around the periphery of the SRF was declared an ecologically critical area (ECA) under section 5 of the Conservation Act 1995 introduced by Bangladesh.

Conservationists as well as organisations such as the UNESCO have flagged concerns over the project planned four km from the boundary of the ECA and about 65 km from the closest boundary of the world heritage property.

Bangladesh Sundarbans landscape. Credit: bri vos/Wikimedia Commons.

Veteran Bangladeshi academic-activist Anu Muhammad said environment laws and constitutional commitments have been “breached” to push ahead with the power plant despite “irregularities” in the project from the very beginning.

“The project has already opened up doors for more harmful projects,” Muhammad, member-secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports said.

Abdullah Harun Chowdhury of Khulna University said the potential negative impacts of the project would outweigh the benefits envisaged and would further imperil the Pashur river and its connected canals, creeks of the Sundarbans that are already contaminated by pollutants from different industries and industry-related shipping activities.

He said locals have reported that the existing industries are solely responsible for depletion of fish and other natural resources, as well as increasing sedimentation in river as these units are continuously discharging the industrial waste, effluent and dry ash.

Based on a study carried out across 10 permanent stations at Rampal, Mongla and the Sundarbans, Chowdhury warned that the forest may lose its recognition as a world heritage site if industrialisation continues unabated.

“Only electrification in the rural area and a few jobs along with localised business facilities will increase by establishing the industries and coal fired power plant. So environmentally, physically, socially and economically the periphery areas of the Sundarbans are not suitable to establish different types of industries including coal based power plants,” Chowdhury said.

The coal-fired plant has also been criticised in a 2016 report on the status of tigers in the Sundarbans landscape, a joint effort by the India and Bangladesh governments. The report sheds light on the low density of tigers in the Sundarbans as “an inherent attribute” of the hostile mangrove habitat that supports low tiger prey densities.

It notes that the “constant movement of boats can become potential barriers to dispersal between islands leading to fragmented and isolated tiger populations within Sundarbans.” The coal based thermal power plant at Rampal and proposed exclusive economic zone in Mongla which is a collaborative effort between India and Bangladesh along with the already established busy Mongla Port “would only further exacerbate this problem.”

Apprehending disturbances to the ecosystem, Muhammad and other independent experts have called for scrapping/relocating the plant elsewhere either in India or Bangladesh underpinned by “proper independent EIA.”

Muhammad spelt out alternatives such as efficient utilisation of existing gas plants, importing electricity from India, Nepal, Bhutan and opting for other eco-friendly measures.

Oil spill in the Sundarbans waterways. Credit: Kallol Mustafa/Wikimedia Commons.

Energy equation in India-Bangladesh friendship

Bangladesh Power Cell’s Hossain said the project is strategically important for the two South Asian neighbours and calls into play India’s experience in coal.

“The Indo-Bangla company is a demonstration of friendship between the two countries, which ultimately aims at building mutual confidence. Bangladesh has little knowledge in handling coal power. The NTPC has vast experience in running coal power plants and import of coal. They know how to handle coal and how to select coal,” Hossain said, adding steps have been taken to ensure safety of the environment.

The practice of recycle and reuse of water has been adopted in this project and saline water will be withdrawn during operation of the plant.

“Only 2.5 cum/sec water will be withdrawn as makeup water out of available 6000 cum/sec flow in the Pashur river in the leanest season,” Hossain said.

Hossain explained that a closed-cycle cooling system with cooling towers has been planned to reduce water withdrawal and consumption. Further, he said, a Central Effluent Treatment Plant (CETP) set-up would be adopted to treat the effluent.

“Maximum treated water would be reused in the project area. No heated and untreated water will be released in the open water and thus it will not hamper the surrounding aquatic life,” Hossain said.

He also reassured that mercury will have no chance of entering the environmental system. A combination of steps will ensure that. The coal used as fuel in Rampal power project will have very negligible mercury content which will check emission of mercury.

The project will use high quality imported coal from Indonesia/Australia/South Africa with very low sulphur (average 0.6%) and ash content (average 10%).

“On an average one purpose-built (as per International Maritime Organisation Convention), environment-friendly, low speed lighterage vessel will be used for carrying coal per day.”

“To prevent dispersion of coal dust that may otherwise pollute air and water, the entire coal transportation process will be done using fully closed vessels and trans-shipment will be done through covered conveyer. Coal will be kept in completely covered coal stack yard,” Hossain said.

However, Chowdhury pointed out that regular dredging of the Pashur channel would be necessary for ferrying coal to the site.

“Degradation of the natural environmental conditions due to continuous dredging can’t be mitigated in any way. Its impacts would be irreversible,” Chowdhury said.

Sustainability practitioner Anurag Danda who has expertise in the Sundarbans landscape, observed that although the mangroves are the best carbon sequesters it is beyond the scope of the extant mangroves to sponge-off emissions that would be produced by the planned power plant.

“Mangroves are the best sequesters but on both the sides (India and Bangladesh) the problem is you can’t harvest mangroves. Whatever is already mature cannot be possibly sequestering anymore. Despite the best technology available, there will be certain amount of emissions.

“The emissions will have to be absorbed somewhere. Otherwise its there in the atmosphere contributing to GHGs. The ability for extant mangroves to sequester that kind of emission is not a possibility,” Danda, senior advisor WWF, told Mongabay-India.

As for concerns over the project impacting Sundarbans in the Indian side, Danda said it is unlikely that pollutants would reaching the Indian side given the geography.

“If you look at its location, lay of the estuary, any pollution release into the water is unlikely to reach Indian Sundarbans. There would be some amount of air pollution but given the prevalent wind direction it is unlikely to reach us unless it’s cyclonic,” Danda said.

“There is a possibility of pollutants reaching the Indian side during winter months. During non-winter months air pollutants will travel further east whereas during winter pollutants will travel south, possibly south-west over Indian Sundarbans,” Danda said.

In addition to the ecological injury, studies have highlighted the economic damage cost of the Rampal Plant could exceed US $100 million dollars per year and that the plant’s “reliance on imported coal”, “will expose consumers to global coal market risk”.

“These are all negative perceptions from the speculations and have no scientific basis. Rampal power plant would rather contribute to the growing economy of the country. The requirement of coal for the Rampal plant is very insignificant compared to global/local reserve, thus there is no possibility of global coal market risk,” said Hossain.

This article originally appeared on Mongabay-India.